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Automation layering: How PPC pros retain control when automation takes over

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The PPC track at SMX Advanced kicked off with a keynote by Ginny Marvin where she considered the future of an industry where automation is increasingly doing more of the work humans used to do. Her message was that we can’t escape automation so we must find a way to coexist with the machines.

The topic of automation in PPC comes up a lot but I suspect that when our industry talks about the impact of automation, what is considered are mostly automations built by the likes of Google and Microsoft… disruptive (but not necessarily bad) capabilities like Smart Bidding, close variant keywords, responsive search ads, etc.

But nobody ever said that advertisers can’t be disruptors too. They too can build automations to change the game and give themselves a competitive edge.

Having to build your own automations may sound daunting but remember that they don’t have to be cutting-edge like machine learning in order to be useful. In this post, I’ll explain an easy way to get started with your own automations using the principle of “automation layering.”

Automations from the engines are better with human help

In my new book, Digital Marketing in an AI World, I explain that humans plus machines usually perform better than machines alone. This is not a new concept and one most of you have probably come across in some form or other. One specific example I used to share in presentations came from Wired in 2014 and said that, “The National Weather Service employs meteorologists who, understanding the dynamics of weather systems, can improve forecasts by as much as 25 percent compared with computers alone.”

Because of the potential for better results, PPC pros want to remain involved. They have knowledge about the business that could meaningfully impact results. Sometimes there simply is not enough data for a machine learning system to come up with the same insight. So it’s generally agreed upon that humans + machines can outperform machines alone.

Generally, we tend to translate this concept into the PPC world by saying that account managers need to work together with automations from the engines.

When humans work together with automations from
the ad engines like Google, the results are generally thought to be better than if the automation didn’t have the help of a smart PPC account manager.

Automations from the engines are better with automations from advertisers

Then I started thinking about the role human PPC managers need to play for the premise to be true that humans + machines outperform machines alone. I realized that the humans in that equation could actually be replaced by machines as well, but in this case, machines that are controlled by the PPC pro and not the ad engine. PPC pros could benefit from the control (since they define the automation) and the time savings (because they don’t need to exert control manually).

So we should try to replace some forms of human control with new layers of automation and see if that delivers the same benefits as humans + machines. If we can write down the steps we take, we can teach a machine to do those steps for us. And it can be a simple rule-based approach which is much simpler to create than something based on machine learning.

Humans don’t need to do repetitive manual work to help the automations from the engines. They can teach their own machines to automate their process.

The concept behind automation layering is not a new idea. In engineering, solutions can be broken down into systems that can themselves be connected to other systems. Each system accepts inputs and returns outputs and so long as there is agreement over the format of inputs and outputs, many systems can be strung together and work seamlessly together to solve more complex problems.

Likewise, an automation could interact with other automations. In PPC, let’s call this principle “automation layering.”  This is an important concept because it’s the next evolution of what PPC pros have been doing for years: using their own insights to control what Google does. But just like Google is getting ever-more automated, our control over it should also become more automated.

By replacing the manual work done by the PPC expert with an automation
that follows their logic, PPC teams can still reap the benefits of having more control over automations created by the ad engines.

Let’s look at why automation layering makes sense in PPC.

Escaping automation is not an option

The reason humans worry about automations created by the engines is that we can’t escape these. They are launched at the engine’s discretion and whether we like it or not, we have to spend time figuring out how they impact our work. Given how busy the typical PPC manager is, this extra work is not something to look forward to.

Despite promising great things, the truth is that success with new automations depends on experimentation and reskilling, both tasks that require time to do well. To take an example from aviation, cutting corners with reskilling when new automations are launched can lead to disastrous results as seen with the 737-Max. Luckily in PPC the stakes are not as high, but I believe the analogy is relevant.

Automation layering for close variants

Some new automations cannot be turned off so they force us to change how we work with Google Ads. Close variants are a recent example of this type of change. In September of last year, they redefined what different keyword match types, like “exact match” mean.

Some account managers now spend extra time monitoring search terms triggered for exact match keywords. This would be a great form of human control to turn into automation layering where the PPC manager turns their structured logic for how they check close variants into an automation that does it automatically.

There are two specific ways I’ve shared to layer an automation on top of Google’s exact match keywords to keep control when they expand to close variants with similar meaning.

The first way is to simply check the performance of the close variant to that of the underlying exact keyword. If a user-defined threshold for performance is met, it can automatically be added as a new keyword with its own bid, or as a negative keyword if the performance is significantly lower. Note that close variants when used in conjunction with Smart Bidding should already get the appropriate bid to meet CPA or ROAS targets, but regardless it can’t hurt to add your own layer of automation to confirm this.

The second way is to use the Levenshtein distance calculation to find how far the close variant is from the exact keyword. It is a simple calculation that adds up the number of text changes required to go from one word to another. Every character added, deleted, or changed adds one point. Hence going from the correct spelling of my company name “Optmyzr” to the common typo “Optmyzer” has a Levenshtein distance of 1 (for the addition of the letter “e”). Going from the word “campsite” to “campground” on the other hand has a score of 6 because 4 letters need to be changed and 2 need to be added.

Layer your own automation on top of close variants to determine how different the close variant is to the exact match keyword. The Levenshtein distance function can be used to calculate the number of text changes required to go from one text string to another.

With a Google Ads script, we could write our own automation that turns these manual checks into fully automated ones. Because it’s an automation that we can define, it’s as powerful as the more manual human control that we used to have to put in to get the benefits normally associated with humans + machines.

Automation layering for Smart Bidding

Other automations like Smart Bidding are optional but with their pace of improvements, it’s just a matter of time before even the most ardent fans of doing PPC manually simply won’t be able to make enough of a difference that they can charge a living wage for their manual bid management services.

The machines are simply better at doing the math that predicts future conversions and using this expected conversion rate to turn an advertiser’s business goals around CPA or ROAS into a CPC bid that the ad auction can use to rank the ad against all others.

That said, remember that Smart Bidding is not the same as automated bidding. Part of the bid management process is automated, but there’s still work for humans to do. Things like setting goals and ensuring measurement is working are just two examples of these tasks.

Smart bidding doesn’t mean the entire bid management process is automated. Account managers still need to control dials for seasonality, conversion types, and fluctuating margins. These well-defined processes are great things to automate so they can be layered on Google’s Smart Bidding automation.

Besides needing to dial in adjustments for seasonality, special promotions and figuring out how to connect these limited controls to business goals like acquiring new customers, driving store visits or driving higher repeat sales, there’s still the point that most companies care about profits. Despite what we may think after hearing of Uber’s $1 billion quarterly loss, the reality is that most companies don’t have hordes of cash from VCs and a recent IPO so profits are what helps these businesses grow. Curiously, Google Ads doesn’t really have a Smart Bidding strategy geared towards profits.

So it’s up to the human PPC pro to bridge that gap and perhaps add some automation layering. One way to drive towards profitable PPC is to take margins into account when setting ROAS goals.

More profitable items (the ones with higher margins) can have lower ROAS targets. Remember ROAS in Google is “conv value/cost” (i.e., conversion value divided by ad costs). Assuming the conversion value is the cart value of the sale, for an item with a better margin more of that cart value is the product markup. So a lower ROAS can still deliver a profit whereas for items with low margins, less of the cart value is the markup and hence a higher ROAS is needed to break even.

PPC pros could manually assign different products to different smart shopping campaigns with different ROAS targets but that would be tedious and time consuming, especially if the margins for existing products were to change due to promotions and sales events. A smarter solution would be to apply automation layering and use a tool or script that sends products automatically to the right smart shopping campaigns where Google’s automations could take over.

Conclusion

The engines are automating many things we used to have lots of control over because we used to do them manually: from finding new keywords, to setting better bids, to writing ads. But when the people behind the businesses that advertise on Google get a say, results can be better than if the engine’s automation runs entirely on its own.

Just like Google is adding automations, so should you. Use the concept of Automation Layering to your advantage to retain the level of control you’re used to while also saving time by letting the machines do your work.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Frederick (“Fred”) Vallaeys was one of the first 500 employees at Google where he spent 10 years building AdWords and teaching advertisers how to get the most out of it as the Google AdWords Evangelist.
Today he is the Cofounder of Optmyzr, an AdWords tool company focused on unique data insights, One-Click Optimizations™, advanced reporting to make account management more efficient, and Enhanced Scripts™ for AdWords. He stays up-to-speed with best practices through his work with SalesX, a search marketing agency focused on turning clicks into revenue. He is a frequent guest speaker at events where he inspires organizations to be more innovative and become better online marketers.

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New site Hotspot Law like ZocDoc for lawyers

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Local search is probably more visible than it has ever been since the advent of Google Maps. Yet, paradoxically, there’s almost no consumer-facing innovation taking place. There’s Google, Yelp, Facebook (somewhat) and a range of specialized vertical apps and sites, some of which have simply survived but aren’t thriving.

Little or no ‘horizontal’ innovation. Part of the lack of “horizontal” innovation in local is likely the result of venture capital not wanting to fund anything that goes up directly against Google. The company may appear to many investors now like an insurmountable juggernaut in local/mobile search.

Any new local-consumer startups, therefore, are likely to appear in specific industries or otherwise offer specialized use cases. Such is the case with Hotspot Law, a new legal search site that hopes to bring ZocDoc-style appointment scheduling to the legal profession. It also seeks to provide a more reliable and cost-effective flow of leads to consumer attorneys.

The legal vertical has a quite a few competitors, including Avvo (Internet Brands), LegalZoom, FindLaw and several others. Despite this, Hotspot Law founder Felix Shipkevich believes he’s solving two unsolved problems in the legal vertical.

“The legal market is in dire need of an upgrade,” argues Shipkevich.

Making direct connections with lawyers. “Once you’ve finished searching online, you have to start calling,” he said. “You don’t get to speak directly to attorneys, you typically talk to a gatekeeper.” He points out that this process of getting to a lawyer is time consuming for people who need legal help. “None of these [completing] platforms directly connect the consumer with an attorney.”

Shipkevich, who is an attorney and faculty member at Hofstra Law School, said he was inspired by ZocDoc and the way it enables direct connections between doctors and patients. Similarly, he wanted to remove the friction in lawyer-consumer matchmaking. Shipkevich explained that also sees Hotspot Law as a way to make “justice” more accessible to consumers.

Why you should care. Legal lead-gen is costly. Shipkevich believes that existing legal sites and ad solutions don’t serve lawyers particularly well either. “PPC advertising can be extremely expensive; in New York it can be $60 to $80 per click.” He adds that “Yelp is expensive. Sometimes it takes $2,000 to $4,000 to bring in a case.”

He wants to solve that problem with simplified reasonable pricing for lawyers who may be struggling to find clients. But he also sees Hotspot Law evolving into a platform to help attorneys manage existing clients. Currently the site only operates in New York, with plans to expand geographic coverage in the coming months.

For the time being Shipkevich will need to rely on SEO for discovery but over time he hopes to build a branded consumer destination. It will be very challenging given the current structure of local SERPs. One has to admire the ambition and chutzpah.


About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He researches and writes about the connections between digital and offline commerce. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.

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Remembering the Tragedy That Made Our Community Start Talking

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About one year ago, everything changed for me and for our community.

A tragedy that struck home so hard it shook us to our core.

A suicide.

A dear friend, brilliant mind, adored father, respected colleague … the list goes on, left us in a way that hits straight to the heart and wakes you up like very few other events can.

I certainly woke up that day. That alarm screamed as loud as it could and I still hear it to this day.

I know I wasn’t alone. So many of my peers experienced similar emotions, sensations, and reactions.

We Could No Longer Ignore the Problem

Sadly, this wasn’t the first tragedy we’d encountered that year – we lost other friends and colleagues as well.

But we knew we couldn’t stand to lose any more amazing people.

We couldn’t look away. We couldn’t just carry on anymore.

So we started talking.

I have been blown away by our internet marketing community. Many of us have never even met face to face and yet the comradery, the friendship, the support among us run rampant!

Never before have I seen a group of people come together so quickly and so openly as when we were forced to face this tragedy.

Groups were formed. Calls were made. Texts were sent. Face-to-face get-togethers were had. Columns like this one were created.

And the best part of it all? It didn’t stop!

We saw the need to stay connected. We recognized that we are a family that needs to support each other. And, perhaps most of all, we saw that we were not alone in our struggles.

It has been amazing to see the openness and honesty that has become so commonplace over the past year. I have seen people that once felt they couldn’t risk being seen without their mask on break down and lay themselves out in the most vulnerable ways.

I include myself in that list. I have become more able to reveal myself to the world around me. That has only been made possible by others sharing in that journey with me.

In leading up to this piece, I knew that I wanted to really find a way to focus on the positive changes that our community has seen because of Jordan Kasteler.

I wanted to honor him in a way that really brought some form of good to this incredible loss that we all experienced due to his passing.

Where Are We Now? Thoughts from Our Community

I reached out and asked a few people in our community if they would share some words of how they have been changed for the better as well as how they have seen our community as whole making changes to support each other over the past year.

Here is what they had to say:

Alexandra Tachalova:

“Working days, nights, and weekends was normal for me a few years ago. However, at that time I couldn’t say that I was really happy. I didn’t understand at the time that my work-life balance was completely off, and I now know that that could have developed into something truly horrifying.

I eventually reached such an emotionally unstable point that I hit a time where one week I was super productive, but the following week I felt hugely demotivated and absolutely miserable. (I know this is a familiar story with many others as well, I hear people telling similar stories and sharing similar experiences regularly.)

Over the past while, I have been working diligently to save myself from this emotional trap. This new focus has led me to investing more time into things that are not related to work and putting more time into the things that help to create a happier life for myself.

I can see that more people in our community are becoming more aware of the need to make this sort of a switch to their schedules and priorities as well, which is brilliant to see!”

Melissa Fach:

“In the past year, I have noticed a massive shift in our community not being ashamed to reach out and ask for help, advice, or just a kind word. I feel like masks have been dropped, and people are not embarrassed to discuss what make them “real”; I love it!

I think many people used to feel they had to have public persona that was acceptable, and now they know we all have issues and it is OK to talk about.

I have a picture of Jordan out that I see every day. I moved past the guilt and the pain when I looked at it, and he is now a daily reminder to stay present with my friends as much as I can.

And, it is a reminder to me to stay focused on my well-being as well. I tend to overwork and do too much for everyone and end up exhausted. I take steps now to take care of me more than ever before.”

Steve Wiideman:

“Though I’ve been in the industry for years, I’m still a somewhat newer member of the SEO community. Call it fear of rejection, social anxiety, whatever, I’ve always been nervous to put myself in a position to be judged by my peers.

It really wasn’t until I was invited to an amazing Facebook group made up of a small close-knit group of industry peers focusing on supporting each other through the day-to-day struggles that I realized that nearly everyone shared the same fears, anxieties and experiences that I have.

What a relief it is to know there is a place where we share what we are feeling and have so much empathy! Finally I have a place I can turn to where people understand me.

Even if I don’t share as much as others, I have peace of mind knowing there are people there ready and willing to listen and help, where there’s no judgement, just open arms.”

Danny Goodwin:

“We’ve definitely made a lot of progress over the past year as a community. However, if I’m being completely honest, we still have a long way to go. I’m still hearing about issues of bullying. I’m seeing people piling on people they disagree with on Twitter.

While, thankfully, these are in the minority, the polarization and black-and-white thinking needs to stop. The judging and assuming needs to stop. The trolling and “mob mentality” needs to stop.

We need to stop fighting each other and start lifting each other up – treating everyone like human beings. Nobody is perfect, but I hope we will continue to see more people be able to let go of their hate and negativity to accept love and positivity into their lives. I know that will continue to be our aim with Friday Focus – to remind everyone that they are not alone in their struggles.

Ultimately, though, I am so happy to be a part of something so positive in our community – and it’s great to see so many others jumping onboard, too.”

Kim Krause Berg:

“It’s easy to assume that your peers are generally doing better than you, making more money than you, and are super successful in every way. It is only in the past few years that I realized this is baloney.

I respect people who remove their masks and show who they really are. We are people with lives and struggles, heartache, depression, and pain.

In the past year I have opened up more and made new friendships as a result. We have more in common with each other than we might think.”

Dave Davies:

“Over the past year I’ve seen an incredible shift in our community.

Social media itself breeds an environment where we see only the best of our peers and post the best of ourselves and being in marketing, needing to be on social media, needing to market ourselves on social media and seeing only the best version of those trained in presenting the best version of themselves – one can feel very alone in difficult times. Compounding that we face an often isolated profession where even sitting beside someone, we are focused on a screen and all they contain.

Sadly, we all know too well what that leads to, and over the past year we collectively recognized that we are human. That those around us are human. That others need support and perhaps most importantly, that we do too.

We finally heard the words spoken all too often after those tragic events, “If only they had asked for help.” And we took it upon ourselves to do so.

We finally knew to listen, to watch and to find out how those around us were doing, lest we face the loss of another friend who we would have dropped everything for, ‘If only they had asked for help.’

The community has grown it’s heart and soul over the past year.

There is still a lot to do. There are still many who don’t know where to turn. Many who don’t know who to talk to. But each time we reach out and each time we talk about challenges openly, share our own and listen to theirs … each time we do that, the community grows it’s heart a little more.

It has been a incredible year of change. While we will forever mourn the spark, the now burning fire keeps us all warmer.”

Jeremy Knauff:

“One thing that has changed dramatically in our industry over the last year, is that as individuals, we’ve become a lot more vocal about asking for help when we need it.

I think most people are more than willing to help each other. They just have to know that someone needs help. Now that people are starting to open up more about their personal struggles, the community is able to better support them.”

Thank You!

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you – whether I know you in person, whether I know you online, even if I don’t know you at all –- thank you for being here.

Thank you for caring and sharing and being a part of the positive change that we are all working so hard at creating.

Keep being a force for good in our community.

Together we will make a difference.

Remembering the Tragedy That Made Our Community Start Talking  

 

This piece is written in memory, honor, recognition, and gratitude of Jordan Kasteler. For all that he gave us, shared with us, taught us and left us with. We are eternally grateful.

 


***PLEASE DO NOT STRUGGLE ALONE! Reach out, ask for help and know that you are valued.
CLICK HERE for a list of phone numbers for Suicide Hotlines around the world.***



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20190718 SEL Brief

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